Jess Walter wrote and rewrote the first sentence of Beautiful Ruins “at least 500 times.”(1) It took Lance Marcum twelve hours to write the first sentence of The Cottonmouth Club.(2) First sentences are that important.
In order to study what makes a good opening, I dug up some popular horror novels, some I haven’t read and some I have. I swear it’s like digging up beloved family members from the graveyard: glad to see them again, goose bumps when I take a closer look. Anyway, these are horror novel first lines that I find appealing (warning, some language):
The author establishes an eerie atmosphere:
- Huge raindrops hit Adrienne’s exposed arms and face as her mother carried her out of the porch’s shelter and down the groaning wooden steps. The Haunting of Ashburn House by Darcy Coates.
- The cold rode the wind as a phantom, flowing down from the white-capped Wyvern Mountains. Shadow Witch by J. Thorn and Dan Padavona.
- It rained like we were a splatter of bird shit God was trying to hose off his deck. What the Hell Did I Just Read? By David Wong. (Eerie and irreverent!)
- A damp breeze pushes the rotting, translucent curtains to the side. The Dark Man by Desmond Doane.
- Wind, urgent and powerful, slapped the pane like a wet hand. The Stone Flowers by Nora O’Keeffe.
We learn in the first sentence that something’s very wrong:
- “Poor, poor thing,” said my mom. Poor Things by Daniel Barnett.
- Eileen couldn’t hear the bird chatter anymore. Hunted by Darcy Coates.
- It was an unmarked car, just some nondescript American sedan a few years old, but the blackwall tires and the three men inside gave it away for what it was. The Outsider by Stephen King. (A little clunky for my tastes, but it still works to let the reader know something bad is up.)
- “What the hell are you doing?” Gilchrist by Christian Galacar.
- I forget everything between footsteps. The 7.5 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. (Good thing I knew it was horror by the title/cover because this first line would work well for a blissful romance, too.)
- I’m the last man on Earth, a fucking holographic recording, actually. Naraka by Alessandro Manzetti.
- “It’s going to happen in three minutes.” 314 by A.R. Wise.
- On the day of the Starland Amusement Park disaster, the one that would send the minor resort town of Conch Beach into its slow death spiral and destroy his family, Carter was only a week away from his twelfth birthday. Inferno Park by JL Bryan.
- Suicide Forest is real. Suicide Forest by Jeremy Bates.
- “Death is a part of life,” Jon said. The Demonic by Lee Mountford. (By itself, just a pithy statement. But paired with the bleak image on the book’s cover, it works as the opening for this horror novel.)
- Bryony Adams was the type of girl who got murdered. Pretty Little Dead Girls by Mercedes M. Yardley.
During Nanowrimo, I can’t spend twelve hours getting the first sentence right. After November is over, I can go back and fuss with the first sentence . . . and all the rest of them as well. Anyway, this is how I started my Nano project:
Catherine Donovan was standing at her father-in-law’s bedside during last rites when the tip of her tongue fell off.
And then I kept typing.
1. “Bookmarks: Jack Black will star in a movie based on Jess Walter’s novel,” by Jeff Baker. https://www.oregonlive.com/books/index.ssf/2012/06/bookmarks_jack_black_will_star.html.
2. “Author Speaks to Students About Writing His First Novel,” by Mark Bliss. https://www.semissourian.com/story/1171095.html.
*The book I’m reading in the feature image is Fatal Agreements by Ashley Fontainne. It’s a Southern Gothic, suspense novel but without an actual ghost. It’s a breath-holding, fun read!